Four Calling Birds?

A Brewer’s blackbird may be our closest equivalent of Europe’s common blackbird, the likely candidate for the Fourth Day of Christmas, Four Colly or Calling Birds.

A favorite holiday song, The Twelve Days of Christmas, was first penned in English in 1780 (it may be of French origin) in a little book intended for children called, Mirth without Mischief. It was known as a memory game called, Twelfth Night.

Over the years, The Twelve Days of Christmas has been a real shape changer. It wasn’t set to music for over 100 years and by that time had gone back and forth through numerous substitutions. For instance, what is currently, nine ladies dancing, used to be the eleven ladies dancing and while in that position morphed, according to Wikipedia, into: Ladies spinning, Badgers baiting, Lords-a-leading, Dancers-a-dancing, Lads a-louping, Bulls a-beating, and Lords-a-leaping.

I knew none of this when I absently plucked one of our Twelve Days of Christmas ornaments off the Christmas tree during a family get together and read the inscription: 4 Colly Birds. I laughed out loud. They had made a mistake! Everyone knows that it is, Four Calling Birds, right? A quick check on the internet set me on my arrogant heels. Indeed, the 1780 version listed Four Colly Birds not calling birds.

What in the world is a colly bird? It turns out that “colly” means black or “black as coal”. So, the song really wasn’t talking about just four birds that could sing, but was referring to four BLACK birds or, blackbirds. That actually made some sense as the previous three verses: three turtle doves, two French hens and a partridge in a pear tree, were all references to species or types of birds, not what they were doing.

In the New World, there are at least 26 species of birds named “blackbird”. Those with which we are most familiar include the red-winged, yellow-headed and Brewer’s blackbirds. They are all members of the Icteridae family.

However, in Europe of 1780, a “colly” or black bird was likely the common, or as often called, Eurasian, blackbird, a member of the Turdidae, or thrush, family and the national bird of Sweden. This family is unrelated to the New World blackbirds and includes the American robin and at least 80 other species.

The familiar shrill and raspy calls of our spring crooners, the red-winged, Brewer’s and yellow-headed blackbirds are not much to sing about. However, thrushes are known for their melodic breeding songs and the common blackbird, while not in the same class as the American robin, has a musical tune as well. So, Four Calling Birds, could be equally correct, even if referring to common blackbirds.

Blackbirds also play a role in the Nursery Rhyme, Sing a Song of Sixpence:


Sing a Song of Sixpence, A pocket full of rye; Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie! When the pie was opened the birds began to sing, Oh, wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before the king?


This nursery rhyme is not as far-fetched as it might seem. Medieval chefs were very competitive and placing live birds or other creatures into pre-baked pie crusts was apparently a common practice to impress lords and ladies.

I tried in vain to find an actual recipe for a true blackbird pie, but I did find a reference that blackbirds were likely a part of the Medieval diet as a readily accessible source of protein.

Whether it is four calling birds or four colly birds, The Twelve Days of Christmas is a good reminder that the peace and service to others that abounds during the holiday season should last longer than a day or even 12 days. May it continue throughout the coming year.

Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho